A Reversal of Fortune
The alarm clock rang at 8:30 on the dot. It was an old-fashioned bell alarm, not one of those digital clocks with their shrill, unpleasant buzzing. That's no way to start a day. Ned and Maude Flanders greeted each other with an affectionate peck on the lips before rising from their king sized bed, linens still neatly tucked around them from the night before. Maude pulled back the curtains and the room filled with sunlight. She opened their bedroom window and was greeted by the pleasant chirping of birds. Evergreen Terrace was unusually quiet, even for an early Saturday morning.
Enjoy it while it lasts, Ned thought to himself. Won't be to long before those darn Jehovah's Witnesses come a-knocking. Bless their damningly misguided hearts.
Ned went down to the living room and put on the family's favorite CD. He sang along with Jim Nabors' booming baritone as he minced happily to his sons' bedroom to wake them up.
The family ate breakfast in the kitchen as they decided how to spend the day. Ned offered an unexpected suggestion.
"I figured we could go down to the new race track today."
Rod and Todd gasped. "You mean the one with all the bright flags?"
"Where they give you soda-water at the end of the race?"
"The very one!" Ned happily confirmed.
The boys jumped with excitement and quickly finished their food.
The family then got dressed and headed outside, where they were greeted by an empty driveway.
"That'd odd. Where the heck's the car?"
Out of habit, Ned peered over at his next-door neighbor's property. No tire tracks, or auto parts strewn about. Well, I suppose Homer doesn't have it. The Simpsons were good people, he convinced himself daily, but they had a funny habit of borrowing very generously from him, sometimes at the most inopportune times.
The family continued to stare, confused, at the empty space in front of their garage.
"Maude? We didn't donate our car to the Salvation Army, did we?"
"No, honey. They're only supposed to be picking up the linens and the used jigsaw puzzles."
Ned scratched his head as he assessed the situation. "Oh, dear. Looks like we've got ourselves a Subaru snatcher."
But how? Ned mentally retraced his steps from the previous day. That evening, he had parked, but continued to fill out inventory paperwork for the Leftorium as he sat in the car. He finally grabbed the paperwork, some order forms, three boxes of "left is the new right" t shirts, a bag of groceries, his driving Bible, and his lunch bag and slowly made his way to the house after slamming his car door shut. After watching through the window as her husband struggled, Maude opened the front door for him.
It suddenly dawned on him. I left the keys in the ignition. And the door was unlocked! How could I have been so- Maude interrupted his train of thought.
"I'm worried, Neddy. First someone takes the coupon booklet out of our Sunday newspaper, and now this. Pretty soon this neighborhood will be overrun with hoodlums!"
Ned remained optimistic. "Now, lets not be too quick to judge. Maybe some unfortunate needed it to, oh, get to work so he could feed his family. Or he might have had to drive his pet to the vet."
"Maybe a good Samaritan decided to wash it for us," Rod offered.
"Yeah. Maybe." Ned shuffled his foot against the gravel.
A few moments passed in silence. Ned had enjoyed his morning too much to have it ruined. He felt compelled to hold on to the moment, no matter what happened.
"Oh, what the hey? It's a beautiful day out. Lets not let a little grand theft auto lead to a grand theft weekend. Whaddaya say we take a nice nature walk?"
Maude agreed. "I'll go get our hiking sticks."
"Ooh! Can we finally use the bug repellent?" Todd asked hopefully.
"Well, the warning did say possible eye irritant…but, why not? I think you boys are old enough to handle it."
"Yay!" the boys cheered.
The Flanderses made their way through Springfield's Nature Preserve, where the late morning calm was cut by a familiar set of voices. They soon found the Simpsons, who were making their way down the same trail. Ned offered them a cheery greeting.
"Why if it isn't our fellow nature-loving neigborinos! Lovely day to be out, isn't it?"
Homer, with his back towards them, jerked at the sound of Ned's voice as if he had been struck with an invisible whip. "D'oh! Another Saturday ruined."
Ned bit his lip, brushing off the outburst. Well, you should know.
Homer spun around and eyed the Flanderses, and then glanced at Marge, who had cleared her throat and was glaring back at him. "I mean, um, hello Flandereses. We were just in the middle of our nature hike, when we found something truly awe-inspiring…a race track!" He pointed toward the bottom of the hill where activity buzzed around a large stadium. "I think we're gonna head down there. This'll be a million times more fun than some boring walk. Right kids?"
"Yeah!" Bart shouted, high-fiving his father.
"Hardly." Lisa crossed her arms in frustration. "I can't believe that the city has destroyed a whole section of the Nature Preserve just to build some stupid car track."
"Stupid? Honey, rubbernecking is the great American pastime," Homer reassured her. "That's what racing is all about! Besides, Mother Nature wouldn't have put all these trees here if she didn't want us to cut 'em down and turn them into something awesome. Right?"
Lisa was not convinced.
Ned smiled. "Well what a coinky-dink! You know, before this morning's unscheduled change of plans, I was thinking about taking a trip down to the track. I had no idea that the good people down at city hall decided to make such easy access to it."
"Oh, what happened this morning, Ned?" Marge was the only Simpson that seemed interested.
"Someone borrowed our car…without asking."
Homer snickered loudly before covering his mouth to contain his apparent glee. "Sorry to hear that, Flanders. You should probably go keep an eye on that." He choked down the last of his giggles.
Ned fought the urge to roll his eyes, and turned his attention back to the stadium.
"You actually like racing?" Bart inquired, before striking a squirrel with a small pebble he had found.
"Yes indeedy. Not so much for the speed, but for all that great safety gear! Say, as long as you're headed that way, what do you say we make a day of it? We can sit together, take in the sun's beautiful rays, and discuss the finer details of the latest prices for imported metal! You know, they make those cars in Puerto Rico to cut down on-"
Ned caught Homer frowning at the suggestion as he grabbed his daughter's hand and started walking.
"Oh, uh…Gee, Lisa, I think you're right. I don't approve of this raceway idea. We should both boycott it, starting right now! Come on, let's go…"
Ned continued to extend his invitation. "Are you sure? I'll even pay for your tickets."
Homer stopped in his tracks. "Oh, I get it. You think we can't afford get in on our own! Well, for your information, we don't need your charity! I was just headed for the ticket booth before I was so rudely interrupted."
"But dad, what about your plan to sneak onto the roof of one of the cars, then roll off once it enters the track, and go sit in the front ro-" Homer yanked Bart by the collar and pulled him along.
"Shut up, boy." Homer turned his attention back to Ned. "No, thanks, Mr. Trump, we 'poor' people have better things to do on a Saturday than sit with a bunch of high class, caviar-eating, NASCAR snobs."
"Well, suit yourselves." Ned was secretly relieved that he would be able to spend a pleasant day with his own family.
"Thanks for the offer, Ned." Marge smiled politely. "Maybe next weekend." She looked for the rest of her family as they disappeared beyond the trees. "Bye, guys!"
"See ya later, Simpsons!"
The Flanderses bid farewell to their neighbors and headed for Springfield Speedway.
As the sun slowly dipped towards the horizon, the Flanderses began their walk back home, using the same path that had brought them there. On the way, they found a clear, secluded patch of land where they sat for a while, singing camp songs and trying to name the various insects that landed on their clothes. Ned put his arm around his wife's shoulders and pulled her in close. He suddenly felt a sense of calm and contentedness that was rare, even to his routinely cheery disposition. He stared at Maude as she smiled towards the children. She turned and caught Ned's eyes, her own sparking from the sun's last rays. They gazed at each other for a brief moment, and said all that needed to be said through their eye contact. He enjoyed their conversation, and he laughed inwardly. I wish we could talk like this more often. I love you, Maude. He silently received her reply.
The calm of the moment was interrupted by the digital strains of " Michael Row Your Boat Ashore ". It was Ned's cell phone. Not recognizing the phone number displayed, he answered the call with a polite, "Ned Flanders. What can I do you for?"
"Mr. Flanders, this is Officer Lou from the downtown station."
The police? The fun of the day had pushed the events of the morning to the back of his mind. "My goodness. What's the problem, officer?"
"Calm down, calm down. We wanted to let you know we recovered a car registered in your name. It's here at the station. Turns out some teenage punks took it for a joyride."
Ah, yes, the blue station wagon that I unwittingly offered up for public access. "Oh, thank goodness! I knew that car would turn up sooner or later. Boy, me and my absent-mindedness." Ned smiled to himself, reassured that, once again, the day was saved for the Flanders clan. "And kids these days! I'm sure their parents or guardians'll give them a very stern talking to," he added with a nervous laugh.
"Uh, actually…don't calm down too much. Your vehicle was involved in a serious accident. I'm afraid its now part of a criminal investigation."
Ned's relief was suddenly snatched away. "Accident? Crime? What…is everyone alright?"
"Well, let's see. There's the shattered windshield, dented roof, broken side view mirror…"
As Lou continued listing the body damage, Ned heard the voice of Chief Wiggum in the background commenting on the tires. "Oh, and it looks like you could use some air in those front ti-"
"Officer, please!" Ned interjected nervously.
"Sorry. Well, lets just say that the woman they hit wasn't so lucky."
"Woman?" Ned sprang to his feet. "What woman?"
"The kid behind the wheel swerved out of control, and mowed her down right in the Kwik-E-Mart parking lot. She was in bad shape by the time the ambulance arrived." Lou let out a frustrated sigh. "It didn't look good. These boys better hope she pulls through, or the next ride they'll be taking is on Old Sparky. Ain't that right, boys?" The familiar voice of a teenage boy yelled from a distance. It was Jimbo Jones, a young man that Ned attempted to council after he had caught him trying to cherry bomb the Flanders' mailbox. He was joined by two other voices.
"You can't give a kid the chair…can you?" Jimbo sounded close to tears.
"If the state passes Prop 187, we can," Lou answered into the phone.
"Hey, man, don't we get a phone call?" Jimbo's friend Dolph whined.
"Well, I think the Kwik-E-Mart has a pay phone," Chief Wiggum snapped back from a distance. "Maybe you should've stopped there!"
Ned's heart began to race. "Who was…who is the victim? Ned's sweat-drenched hands struggled to keep hold of the phone. Maude and the boys, having overheard Ned's side of the conversation, gathered closely around him as the phone dropped from his hands. His fingers twitched slightly.
"We've got to get to the hospital!"
Springfield County Hospital's emergency room was loud and busy. A strange array of patients littered the halls. Ned nearly knocked over a boy with a pair of plastic scissors shallowly impaled in his forehead that had been wandering aimlessly near the front doors. Ned rushed to the front desk and was pointed towards a patient waiting room down the hall by an apathetic clerk who did not put down her book long enough to make eye contact. Maude, Rod, and Todd followed closely, Maude's arm locked into Ned's. He stopped suddenly.
"Maybe you all should wait here," he cautioned, though he was not sure why.
As he approached the waiting room, the sounds of the emergency room faded away, replaced with an eerie silence. His hand shook with fear as he raised it toward the knob. Ned took a deep breath. He entered the room, but chose not to speak. The group, in turn, did little to acknowledge his presence. Ned's heart sunk as he surveyed the room. In one corner, Selma and Patty held each other, shaking with heavy heaves and sniffles. A few chairs down, Abe say quietly, his head bowed and his eyes lowered, muttering something to himself as his granddaughter Maggie grabbed at his face in frustration. Maggie whimpered slightly as she spotted Ned. She reached out her arms towards him. Ned scooped up the toddler and turned toward the far end of the room, pangs of guilt now slashing at him. Homer sat stiffly, surrounded by his two eldest children. One arm was held tightly around Bart, whose head was down in his lap. Tears stained the front of his shorts. Homer's other arm held Lisa face down into his chest, her sobs muffled by his jacket. As Ned got closer, he saw that Homer was staring blankly at the coffee table in the center of the room, his face pale and damp. He looked as if he were going to vomit, or possibly drop dead. Maggie, distraught and confused by her family's demeanor, began to cry, snapping Homer from his trance. He lifted his head to find Ned standing next to him. Ned was taken aback by the pained and frightened look in his neighbor's eyes.
"Aw, Ned, you're too late," his voice warbled, barely audible. "She's gone."